The Old Town Chinese Restaurant in Dublin 1 is an authentic Sichuan Chinese restaurant serving large portions of tasty and very inexpensive regional food.
WHERE is there good Cantonese cooking to be found outside China would you reckon?
Well one much-travelled Chinese American friend of mine, food writer Mei Chin, believes that Ireland can easily match New York and many other western cities.
There is hardly an Irish village or city suburb without a Chinese takeaway or restaurant, some of which opened as long ago as the 1950s and cooking standards are high, especially if you order off the standard menu according to Mei.
Mei is in the middle of a wonderful project with Donegal Irish- Chinese chef Kwangi Chan to harness some of the creativity of these Chinese (Hong Kong Cantonese but also Hunan and Shangdong) chefs and give them a chance to show that they can cook more than Chicken Chow Mein and Sweet and Sour Pork.
More importantly they plan to educate and encourage Irish diners to order this food and remove their fear of the unknown.
The most recent wave of Chinese into Ireland came to learn English from the late 1990s onwards and many settled in the centre of town.
Suddenly Moore St, Parnell St and Capel Street began to fill with Chinese shops and restaurants creating a mini-Chinatown offering regional Chinese food — heaven for adventurous eaters.
I still remember the walk up the battered stairs to China House on Moore St and my first taste of Sichuan Hot Pot, and I still sometimes visit Mandarin House on Parnell Street for ‘Spicy Pocket Wonder’ and ‘Husband and Wife Lung Slices’ both of which I highly recommend.
M&L on Cathedral Street (near the Pro-Cathedral) held the crown next and it is still popular but with a younger crowd, the more sophisticated and established Chinese families now mainly go to Old Town.
For ‘banquet style’ Sichuan food the king is the China Sichuan in Sandyford — one of Dublin’s best restaurants of any hue, but for this review I was seeking more casual food.
Sichuan Province in Southwest China is rather damp and humid so locals have always tried to balance this dampness by adding heat to their food — a yang to counter the yin.
Until the arrival of chilli peppers they used Sichuan Pepper which is numbing rather than hot — chew a tiny pepper for ten seconds with your front teeth and you won’t be able to feel your lips.
This ‘ma’ sensation is essential to Sichuan cooking and is allied with the heat of dried chilli peppers which are used with abandon but rarely overwhelm the palate — balance is key.
Old Town’s menu has well over a hundred choices and while it does contain some standard Chinese dishes I wisely brought Mei and another Chinese American friend of hers to make sure we got the best from the menu.
We arrived early for a 6.30 sitting which is always the best time to see if a Chinese restaurant has many Chinese patrons as Chinese families eat early — myself and herself were the only westerners in the packed restaurant until around 7.30pm.
All the dishes were large sharing bowls and the waitress was forced to bring an extension table to cope with all the food we ordered.
Sliced Whelks with ginger and scallions was easily my favourite dish — subtle lightly cooked tender whelks with crispy bean sprouts for balance.
My next favourite was Sichuan beef with wood ear mushrooms packed with chilli peppers and a big ‘ma’ numbing flavour but also sweet-sour elements and a delicious richness.
Aubergine Chilli Hot Pot was wonderfully sweet and spicy (possibly a little too sweet for some palates) and a good foil for the beef.
Pork Mince with Green Beans (mis-translated as lentils on the menu) were crunchy and spanking fresh, and a good foil to the umami flavours in the mince.
Not every dish worked, the Dan Dan Noodles looked authentic but didn’t have any preserved vegetables and had not nearly enough ‘ma’ flavours, and the tofu strips with chicken looked like tagliatelle but were too dry and chewy for my taste.
So do take a walk on the wild side and head to the Old Town on the Hebei as the Chinese call Dublin’s North Side.
Bring some friends as the portions here are generous and while some dishes lacked a ‘ma’ factor (Mei and her friend’s judgement also), this was a fun, interesting and mostly a very tasty meal.
Dinner for four including eight sharing dishes, bottle of wine, two beers and pot of green tea — €112.35 (excluding tip)
Daily: 12pm – 10.30pm
In a sentence: An authentic Sichuan Chinese restaurant serving large portions of tasty and very inexpensive regional food.
Old Town Chinese Restaurant, 123 Capel Street, Dublin 1; tel: 01-8733570
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